A unique public-private partnership between Rollins and Orange County Public Schools is giving teaching aides a clear path to classrooms of their own.
Program assistant Marybelle Doe ’21 is one of the first 14 paraprofessionals to enroll in Rollins’ new Pathways to Teaching program. Photo by Scott Cook.
Marybelle Doe ’21 has loved to teach for as long as she can remember. At age 6, she lined up teddy bears and dolls for play lessons, passing around little books and imitating her kindergarten teacher. But when it came time to enter the workforce, life took her on a different path. Doe worked in mortgage lending for a large part of her career, but that call to teach, to make learning fun, to help others achieve a better future, kept pulling at her. She eventually became a teacher’s aide in Los Angeles and continued this work in the public school system when she moved to Florida.
“My passion for teaching never left me,” says Doe, whose role as a program assistant at Cypress Creek High School includes optimizing the classroom for Exceptional Education Students. “I love everything about education and everything teachers do in the classroom—being creative with the instruction and lesson plans, watching the learning take place, the questions that students ask.”
Yet without a bachelor’s degree, Doe isn’t able to teach at a Florida public school, even though she has worked in Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) since 2008. Doe is a mother of two juggling two jobs, so whenever she toyed with the idea of going back to college, she was fraught with worry about the time and money it would take to make it happen.
Taylor Montoya ’21 is pursuing her education degree through Rollins’ Pathways program so she can become an Exceptional Student Education teacher. Photo by Scott Cook.
Enter Rollins’ Pathways to Teaching program, a new partnership between the College and OCPS designed to create a pipeline of licensed classroom teachers to Title I schools that need them most. Thanks to this unique 2½-year program offered through Rollins’ Hamilton Holt School, Doe and 14 other inaugural Pathways students are now well on their way to completing their bachelor’s degree in elementary education and becoming leaders in the classroom starting as early as 2021.
“It has always been my goal to return to school and earn a degree in education so I could instruct my very own classroom and realize my childhood dream,” says Doe, whose daughter, Topanga Sena ’23, is also a Rollins student majoring in business management. “I had put off returning to college for many reasons, but then one day something magical appeared in my inbox, and that was the opportunity to receive the dream education I had wished for at Rollins.”
Parent engagement liaison Malissa McCan ’21 calls out the small class sizes, close relationships with faculty, and sense of community at Rollins for setting her up for success. Photo by Scott Cook.
The Pathways program creates a constellation of shared opportunities. It gives paraprofessionals the opportunity to complete a bachelor’s degree and seek better-paid, full-time, rewarding work leading a classroom. It gives elementary children in the district’s Title I schools the potential of learning from teachers who have been guided by Rollins faculty to understand the psychology and motivation of learning. And it gives OCPS a pool of licensed educators for schools in need of qualified, engaged teachers.
“This is an amazing group of students who are really dedicated to finishing their undergraduate education and using it to teach children,” says education professor Debra Wellman, whose curriculum expertise was vital in developing the Pathways program.
The Pathways to Teaching students follow Rollins’ Department of Education’s proven curriculum and benefit from 225 years of collective teaching experience among its expert faculty. The flexible schedule—one five-week evening class at a time, two nights per week—allows students to continue working as OCPS paraprofessionals during the day. In fact, the original Tuesday and Thursday class shifted to a later time in response to the challenges of commuting during rush hour. This is just one of the myriad ways the Holt School is committed to accommodating the professional and personal schedules of Pathways students, who laud the one-on-one attention they receive from faculty and the bonding they experience with their cohort.
Photo by Scott Cook
“The small class size allows for lots of time to ask questions, get clarity, and practice a lot of the tasks that we would expect from our students,” says Malissa McCann ’21, a Pathways student who works as a parent engagement liaison at OCPS. “The bonus that came with it is the compassion that has been shown by everyone involved in the program, whether it’s the program staff or my fellow classmates.”
Each student receives a free laptop and books thanks to Title I grant funding, and Rollins provides $500 toward tuition per semester per person. OCPS continues to pay salaries to the paraprofessionals, an essential ingredient in making the degree possible for those who can’t overcome the hurdle of an unpaid internship.
“I didn’t want to earn my degree from just any college,” says Doe, who praises the teaching methods and sense of community that has already developed in the first semester of the program. “I wanted substance, personal attention, and value, and I knew I’d get that at Rollins. The program has exceeded my expectations and then some.”
Education professor Debra Wellman teaches a class on social studies methods to Rollins Pathways students. Photo by Scott Cook.
Florida has experienced a severe teacher shortage for the past decade, with 3,500 positions unfilled at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year and 200 of them in Central Florida. The fast-growing district of Orange County—the eighth largest in the nation—faces a wave of teacher retirements as well as competition from private-sector employers, and elementary educators are especially hard to find.
Determined to meet this challenge head-on, Orange County Public Schools reached out to Rollins in fall 2018 to devise ways to increase students’ interest in pursuing degrees in education with the goal of becoming classroom teachers. From a single conversation, a powerful partnership quickly grew.
OCPS representatives described how the district employs more than 200 paraprofessionals within its Title I schools, which feature high rates of student poverty, noting that while many of these teaching assistants hold associate degrees, they had not reached the undergraduate finish line.
“That was all I needed to hear,” says Wellman. “I thought, why can’t we get them their degree?”
OCPS and Rollins quickly aligned to tailor a new condensed degree track for these classroom assistants already working in public schools, involving 16 courses and a semester of supervised teaching for which they are paid.
To find the first batch of students, Neil Otto ’05, OCPS human resources administrator and recruiter, contacted all of the district’s paraprofessionals. Close to 100 people appeared at the first informational meeting, and the program was up and running just 10 months later.
“Many of the teaching assistants had been nominated by their own principals as a way of saying, ‘We would have hired you already if you had a degree,’” says Otto, who studied economics at Rollins. “They have their own leadership behind them, encouraging them. On top of it they have support from OCPS and the Rollins Hamilton Holt School administration. It’s been amazing to see and be a part of, especially as an alumnus of the Holt School.”
Rollins’ unique cohort model allows for relational, hands-on learning in which students benefit from shared experience and expert instruction. Photo by Scott Cook.
Rollins Pathways to Teaching is the only program of its kind in Florida. Wellman said she hopes to spread the word about the unique public-private model through national education conferences. Rollins says there’s already interest in the mutually beneficial program among educators in Florida beyond Orange County.
“The paraprofessionals are getting paid during their internship, and that’s one of the biggest things that schools are going to want to replicate,” says Wellman, who is currently teaching a course in social studies methods to Pathways students.
Another distinct feature of the Pathways program is its cohort structure in which OCPS paraprofessionals attend classes at Rollins together. Being in the same classroom and sharing life experiences fosters unique discussions and a foundation for even deeper learning. Through small, discussion-based classes anchored by hands-on activities like reading simulations and teacher interviews, the Pathways students discover how best to help children learn new concepts and how to analyze effective teaching strategies through observation.
Photo by Scott Cook
The Hamilton Holt School is accepting applicants on a rolling basis for students who seek to begin classes in fall 2020.
To apply, follow the standard online application process at Rollins’ Hamilton Holt School, which includes a personal statement, and make sure to select a drop-down menu option saying you work at OCPS. Applicants are encouraged to have completed an associate degree or 60 undergraduate credits and must work as paraprofessionals at a Title I school in Orange County to qualify for benefits provided by the Pathways to Teaching program.
A 2.8 GPA in previous undergraduate coursework guarantees admission but is not required. Passing the Florida Teacher Certification Examinations’ General Knowledge test is encouraged to be completed prior to starting the program.